2023 Amazon Rainforest Fires

An astonishing 3.6 million acres have been scorched in Brazil’s Amazon in the first half of 2023.
Industrial agriculture and cattle-ranching are the primary drivers of Amazon fires.
One of the best ways to protect the Amazon is to secure and expand the land rights of Indigenous peoples.

Rainforest Foundation Us’s Response to the Amazon Fires

Healthy communities can manage and protect their lands better than anyone. Building on 35 years of steady, dedicated work with Indigenous partners in the Amazon, Rainforest Foundation US provides direct technical support in legal defense, land titling, monitoring, and capacity-strengthening, so that Indigenous communities may continue to manage their rainforest territories with the knowledge and care they have sustained for thousands of years.

Throughout the Amazon, we are supporting partners to actively prevent and respond to the threat of fires by:

How do Indigenous Peoples and Land Rights help prevent fires?

Indigenous peoples are the most effective forest stewards. Rainforests held by Indigenous peoples have a lower presence of fire and lower fire temperatures, meaning they’re better able to resist forest loss. Data also shows that rainforests managed by Indigenous peoples contain greater carbon density than state-managed forests and foster higher levels of biodiversity.

It’s simple: One of the best ways to protect the Amazon from destruction from fire, mining, and illegal-logging is to secure and expand the land rights of Indigenous peoples living in these territories. Ensuring Indigenous peoples and local communities have rightful governance and control over their territories, as well as access to the necessary technology, training, and resources to manage and protect their territories is crucial to preventing fires and protecting the biodiversity and cultural heritage of the region.

The satellite map below displays real-time fires and Indigenous peoples’ lands. The majority of fires are observed outside Indigenous territories, typically ceasing at their boundaries.

What is the current status of the Amazon fires in 2023?

While deforestation has decreased significantly in the Amazon this year, the forest is still burning at an alarming rate. From January to June 2023, fires in the Brazilian Amazon have surged by 14.26% compared to the same period in 2022. An astonishing 3.6 million acres (1.45 million hectares) have been scorched in the first half of this year, up from 3.1 million acres (1.27 million hectares) last year. Almost half of the area burned is concentrated in northern Brazil’s Roraima state, bordering the Yanomami Indigenous territory, as well as Venezuela and Guyana.

Fire season is cyclical in the Amazon, and tracks with the corresponding dry season in different regions. Fires in the northern Amazon typically begin in February and reach their peak in March, while fires in the Southern Amazon begin in July and peak in August or September.

Furthermore, the number of fires is accelerating as the season drags on, with June seeing the highest number of recorded fires since 2007. Large-scale tropical deforestation frequently occurs well in advance of the actual burning season, which typically reaches its peak between July and October. This means we may not yet know the full impact of the record-breaking deforestation witnessed under Bolsonaro.

The Impact of El Niño:

Scientists have predicted an intense El Niño (unusually warm water in the Pacific leading to disruptions of weather patterns) during the second half of 2023. For the Amazon, this raises concerns about a potentially devastating fire season. The combination of El Niño, record-breaking temperatures for the past eight years, and deforestation creates conditions that are ripe for fires.

Amazon fires made global headlines in 2019—will 2023 be as bad?

Unfortunately, probably so.

In August 2019, massive smoke plumes drifted thousands of miles from the burning Amazon and settled over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, blocking out the sun.

The world’s attention focused on Jair Bolsonaro’s administration as he opened the Amazon for further exploitation by incentivizing ranching and large-scale agriculture, the primary drivers of tropical forest fires.

Despite international pressures, the situation has continued to deteriorate. Annual fires in the Brazilian Amazon have exceeded the destructive toll of 2019 not once, but twice—first in 2020 and then again in 2022.

The inauguration of President Lula da Silva’s and his inclusion of Indigenous leadership within his administration brings a glimmer of hope for the Amazon. However, a conservative-led congress representing agribusiness interests leaves much yet to be seen. The future of the Amazon hangs in the balance.

Area Burned in Brazil’s Amazon from January to August  Since 2019

Why Does the Rainforest Burn?

Tropical forests such as the Amazon are very humid, and under natural conditions they rarely burn—unlike many forests in the western United States where fire is a natural part of the forest’s life cycle.

In the last few decades, two interrelated phenomena have driven Amazon fires: drought, and the expansion of industrial agriculture.

Forests cleared for cattle or crops are cut and then deliberately set on fire once the felled trees are dry enough to burn. Typically, the surrounding forest is wet enough to stop the fire at the edges of new fields and pastures. But prolonged drought in the Amazon basin—linked to climate change and deforestation—means fires are escaping into neighboring intact forests and burning out of control across thousands of acres.

As more forests are cleared, new roads are built, more people move into the area, and new fields are cleared for cattle and crops, creating a vicious cycle that both intensifies the drought and exposes more forests to fire threats.

Scientists warn this cycle is leading the entire Amazon towards a ‘tipping point,’ believed to occur when the combined effects of deforestation and degradation surpass a threshold of 20% to 25%. At that point, the world’s largest tropical forest would become so fragmented that it would no longer retain sufficient moisture to sustain itself, leading to catastrophic consequences for the global climate and life on Earth.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.